Jumping up on stage to sing with your friends at a local bar is nothing like professional background singing which is among the most demanding of singing jobs. The basic requirements are a great voice, sightsinging skills, a fast ear for harmonies and the ability to blend.
Those are the vocal skills. You also must be good with people, adaptable in difficult situations, easy going and a team player. Not to mention the business skills it takes to run your own business and network constantly.
Possibly the most well known background singer in the business, Rosemary Butler’s credits are frightening. She has toured, recorded, and performed live and on video with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston just to name a few. She sang all of the background parts on the single, The Rose. She has just come back from performing on the American Music Awards in Nashville with Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney.
Donna Davidson’s history is equally intimidating having sung for virtually every country artist in Nashville as well as Michael Jackson, Belinda Carlisle, Natalie Cole, Amy Grant, Ray Charles and Henry Mancini to name a few. Both singers also do session singing for commercials, film and TV.
Apart from the astounding credits, Donna and Rosemary are quite different in their approach to their careers. Rosemary started out as the bass player/singer in an all girl Southern boogie band in high school which opened for the Rolling Stones. Her band toured and recorded a couple of albums for ABC/Dunhill. “I met a guy named Catfish who wanted me to sing on his record and that’s where I met Bonnie Raitt. I got along with her so well and had such a great time and she asked me to sing on her record. On her record I ended up singing with Michael McDonald and Jackson Browne. Then they asked me to sing on their records.”
In Nashville Donna played organ and sang in her church choir and taught school. “The guy standing next to me in the tenor section was with the Anita Kerr Singers and they were looking for an alto. He asked me if I was interested in doing a session and I didn’t even know what he was talking about.”
Donna didn’t intend to become a singer for a living. “I just sort of fell into it and it was better money than teaching school. I never wanted to do a solo thing; I never wanted to perform. I was on the road for a year and it was too much of a grind. I thought it was a much better gig to show up, sing your part, go home and get your check.”
The Voice: When you go into a session, do they give you the parts or do you make them up? Donna: Sometimes the parts are completely written out and sometimes you do head charts, [a vocal arrangement that is done on the spot at the session usually by the singers]. The Barry Manilow record was all stuff from the twenties and thirties so it was completely written out. You just walk in and read it. On some rock and roll dates, the producer might have some ideas and you add to those or change them. You usually just have a lyric sheet.
Rosemary: It works both ways. I was working on the new Willie Nelson record. The producer let us go in there and do whatever we wanted to and then he approved it at the end.
The Voice: What are the requirements to be a good background singer?
Rosemary: Pitch. The ability to… change your voice and vibrato in order to blend. Singing with Ringo Starr or Joe Cocker is very different than singing with Amy Grant or Dolly Parton. You have to be able to understand… the way they breathe, the way they pronounce words, the color and tone of their voice, what their emotions are. It’s the basic experience of harmony – getting along with, adding to, making fuller, someone else’s experience, someone else’s vision.
Donna: Be adaptable and flexible…and a good reader. I can sound any number of different ways depending on the style of what we’re singing. You never know what you’re going to get called in for. It could be rock and roll, country or a boys choir. Be there on time, be prepared, be easy to work with. You work under tense situations and close quarters so there’s not room for people to have any attitude.
The Voice: What about a tape?
Rosemary: I have a tape of backgrounds and a commercial tape and my solo work. [Ed. note; Rosemary has two gold records in Japan.] I update it constantly. Depends on what their looking for.
Donna: Show as many styles as possible using sections of songs. The whole tape should be four minutes tops. Edit it so it’s interesting and well paced. [I] used both solos and small group stuff.
The Voice: How do background singers get work?
Donna: AFTRA has a producers list that is available to union members. Come to singers meetings at AFTRA and SAG. You have to keep your effort level up. You can’t really take it for granted because it’s very competitive and there are any number of people coming into town every week that would love to do what you do. It’s a combination of being prepared and being grateful.
Rosemary: You have to constantly be looking for work. I have to remind people I’m here and not on the road. You can’t wait for the phone to ring. You have to go out in the clubs and see people, invite them to your gigs to keep the relationships going. One thing leads to the other; you may be doing this really uninteresting song demo but you might have met the producer of your dreams. It’s like dominos. It may not be that exciting but then another door opens because of that opportunity.
Donna: There’s no real job security. You work on the strength of your reputation. You’re only as good as your last performance. It’s all based on what the other people on the date thought about what you did.
The Voice: Do you have any advice?
Donna’s: Learn to read. Get real good solid musical training. You wouldn’t call yourself a plumber if you didn’t own a wrench. Play an instrument like piano because it’s not a single note instrument. You are playing whole chords which include the harmonies. It helps you understand the structure, stay better in tune and understand whats going on musically.
Rosemary’s: Have a good time. Some people get into the studio and white knuckle it, you know, up tight. Stay loose and get out of your own way. If you trust your instincts, you allow your feelings to come through. Donna: It’s the best job in the world.
This article is reprinted with the permission of Lis Lewis. Lewis is a renowned vocal coach and a member of the SingerUniverse Advisory Board. She also has an excellent, popular website for singers, called The Singers Workshop.